by Ted Honderich

A piece printed in The Guardian during the first New Labour government. Was the nature of the second Labour government clearer? That is the view of the book Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (Pluto Press, 2005).

We know Tony Blair's got a better grip on equality than he might have got at Balmoral with the Duke of Edinburgh, who once said it was the idea that helicopters ought to be put down because not everybody gets to ride in them. But you can still be a little puzzled by our leader's performance on the subject of true equality at the Labour Party conference. 

The history of political philosophy is littered with principles of equality, one for everybody. A seemingly feelingful one is equal respect, formerly known as equality in the sight of God. It has often been called equal worth. Some reported from Bournemouth that this was the foundation of the new moral thinking. What is the principle, really? 

Keith Joseph, thinker for Mrs. Thatcher, had a word to say for it. That was because all it may actually require is no disdain, no condescending to people. You've got to be polite when you don't fork out in the street for The Big Issue. It's not a principle that costs much, and I wouldn't really saddle Tony with it. 

Although some said he was under American influence, he wasn't explicitly for a principle of the voice of American liberalism, the doctrinally-burdened John Rawls. That principle is that we ought to have all the socio-economic inequality, if any, that makes a worst-off class better off than it would be without the inequality. It turns out that any politician can embrace it, and most have. Reactionary ones say that to serve the end we need yet more socio-economic inequality than we've got. 

Tony wasn't for equality of incomes, either, a notably unMandelsonian concept. Nor for equality of well-being, which is everybody having the equal amounts of well-being at the highest possible level. It's true that if you really thinking about well-being, the satisfaction of desires generally, rather than money or power or whatever, it would just be irrational to prefer the highest equality of it to everybody being still better off but unequally so. 

Another thing he wasn't for, sadly, is what can bravely be called The Principle of Equality. It is that we should actually take really effective steps to get people out of the definable condition of being badly-off. In doing so we should not constrain ourselves much by respect for funny rights or unnecessary demands for rewards on the part of entrepreneurs and the like -- there's too much of that in Rawls' principle as usually understood. This stronger Principle of Equality is what Egalitarianism has always been about. 

What our leader along the Third Way defined himself as being against several times was something called conservatism. That turned out to include not only the party of the poor Hague, but also certain trade union people and hide-bound doctors. So what brings them together? Resistance to change, which is the case with ordinary-life conservatism? Anyone who takes that to be true of the party of Mrs. Thatcher since 1979 has spent too much time in the sun on holiday. 

Could it be that Tony has an idea that our conservative tradition in politics is unique in not having an actual moral principle to defend the self-interest it shares with all the rest of us? That it is unlike other political traditions in being no more than self-interested? But that he was not keen to say so and explicitly define himself as against self-interest? Since our party has embraced and celebrated some of it in order to get where it is? 

In what he said there was a lot about merit and talent being recognized and forwarded, and this shaded into what I guess really was his main idea: equality of opportunity. The trouble with this, like the trouble with freedom, is that every party is for something that can be given the name. You can have more or less of equality of opportunity. Maybe even too much. How much are we going to get if things go according to the Bournemouth illumination? 

Clearly not so much that merit and talent don't get rewarded. We've heard a lot about the moral necessity of that. But it's no news that the rewards to the meritorious fathers are unlikely to make for much equal opportunity for other sons than their own. There's a conflict there. 

Also, if you are to have something like fair or full equality of opportunity, and the means to it don't fall from heaven, won't that mean taking from a class of the well-off to help out a class of the badly-off? And won't that be somewhere on the way to what we were informed was definitely over, the class war? And might fair equality of opportunity have something to do with, if you will excuse my language, capitalism and socialism? 

The speech was good stuff, and sincere, and made me like him more. But it was bumble. Not muddle but bumble. It seems that the politics we're in makes this necessary. If the speech was his best shot at defining himself, he missed. Maybe that was the thing to do. Sad, though. 

For a very full discussion of all the principles of equality mentioned here, enough to keep you going for a while, have a look at What Equality is Not, Fortunately and What Equality Is. And also The Principle of Humanity. For a later view, there is the book mentioned above in the introduction.